“I’m exhausted.”

“I can’t get it all done.”

“I’m working ridiculous hours.”

“I’m at home all day now but I’m not getting everything done.”

These are some of the complaints people have shared with me over the last few weeks. Well, I say complaints but they were all said as passing comments to me by women. All women who I know well and all of whom are very good at going above and beyond for other people, for their jobs, for their partners, for their families. Can you relate to any of these complaints right now? There’s a big reason for that. Let’s take a few moments to explore it.

Once upon a time…in a magical land called Essex.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin. Many, many years ago, in a Primary School in Essex, there was a tiny girl. I do mean tiny. Scrawny, mousy brown hair, glasses, might keel over in a strong wind. This girl wanted to be good at school. She saw other pupils getting gold stars for good colouring in or good reading and she thought to herself, “I’ll have some of that!”. This little girl became, what is often known as, a bit of a swot. That tiny swot was me.

My need for affirmation, gold stars and being good led to an intense need for good grades in Primary and Secondary School. Overachieving? Yes. A need to be liked by pretty much everyone? Yes. A need to do well at everything so that I could leave Essex? Yes. All gold stars so far, no matter what the cost to me.

Time went on, university and life happened and I continued to go above and beyond in every job I had, even the job, long ago, where I came home every single day crying as my manager was, well, not a very nice person. But, as I got into my late 30s, I hit some stumbling blocks. That constant need to ‘do well’ started to really impact my life as the perimenopausal years kicked in and, well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step away from my Essex fairytale and look at what those gold stars lead to for you.

How you learn to achieve in early life and what you perceive as “good” and “success” can end up deeply rooted in your beliefs system as you get older, as you start to ‘adult’. This need to get those now imaginary gold stars may show up as:

  • Staying in a job that you’re miserable in as you’re sure it’ll get better some day.
  • Working very, very long hours.
  • Being privately (or more publicly) miffed when you don’t get that promotion or pay rise you were after. After all, you’ve done all the work. You deserve it, surely?*
  • Keeping your kids to a tight after-school schedule (and a tight at-home schedule right now), involving yourself in every aspect of their schooling and wondering where the day went when you get into bed at night.
  • Speaking of beds? You’re not sleeping well at.all. You’re thinking about your To Do list, your multiple To Do lists, getting up in the middle of the night to do that one last job in the house or your emails or your project list.

* We don’t just go above and beyond, we also underplay our own achievements. In this 2013 research study from the University of Massachusetts and NYU, when looking at team performance, women gave more credit to their male teammates and took less credit themselves unless their role in bringing about the performance outcome was irrefutably clear. How do we get over this? A part of the solution can be supporting other women and people of colour in your workplace as well as exercising your own ‘self-promotion’ muscle (that’s why I love that I’m now an #IamRemarkable Facilitator as the workshops really delve into this).

Okay, so recognise yourself at all? If so, I’m going to throw a big old spanner (or wrench) in your works.

Welcome to your “new normal” of 60% work effort.

“60%? What, in everything?” I hear you all cry! The very thought of this fills you with dread.

So, here’s me slapping a STOP sign straight in front of you. Because, what actually happens when you’re continually aiming for gold stars is

  • No time for yourself
  • You don’t recognise yourself anymore as you don’t do the fun stuff you used to do
  • No time to maintain friendships, develop new friendships, develop or maintain hobbies.
  • No time for your partner or yourself.
  • No time to breathe.
  • No time to reflect.

Any or all of this happening between 35 and 60 can be an even bigger recipe for disaster as your body starts going through it’s reverse teenage-hood (otherwise known as perimenopause and menopause, fun times!).

Your continual reaching for doing everything at 100% doesn’t lead to praise/promotions/more money (though some of that might be a side-effect), it leads to you being a burned-out version of yourself. You might be losing your temper more at other people, family or friends. You might be sleeping really badly. You might be overwhelmed with a feeling of dread as soon as you wake up in the morning. You might be suffering from depression or anxiety. Or, like me a few years ago, you might throw a complete hissy-fit at work, end up at your GP talking about menopausal symptoms AND then finding a good psychotherapist and working on coaching yourself. Or is that just me?

Who’s winning with your 100% effort?

It might be you on the odd occasion but if you’re aiming for high achievement and those imaginary gold stars in everything you do in life then, brace yourself, this might hurt, you’re going to Fail. Yep, a big old F. Okay, I’m shuddering just thinking about an F at work! BUT, do not fret as I’m going to let you in on a secret, well not quite a secret but you may not realise this.

Your 100% looks, to someone else, like 200%.

Here’s another zinger for you.

Someone else’s 100% actually looks, to you, like your 30%.

Okay, enough percentages before my maths anxiety gets triggered. What you view as “good” achievement or “bad” achievement is subjective. What you see as someone else “slacking off”, that someone else probably sees as “giving it their all”.

So, why all this talk about gold stars and achievement and burn-out and percentages?

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic on top of a lot of s**t going down in countries around the world. There isn’t a prize for coming out of this with all your ducks in a row, everything in your life scheduled to the second and all of your work for the day, week, month, year getting done on time. There are no gold stars in a pandemic!

Let’s go back to those women I was hearing from. Change, boy oh boy, change is HARD. It’s hard but it’s important and it’s especially important right now. Those women? I suggested something to them all. I said to each of them,

“How about taking your 100% down to 40%?”

When that got a gasp of astonishment, I suggested something else.

“How about taking your 100% down to 60-70%? What would that feel or look like?”

and I added on something significant, that gets those former swots (yes, hands up, I am one!) thinking more clearly.

“Your 60% effort is still quite likely to look a lot like someone else’s 100%”

as what we see and feel about achieving is subjective!

And yes, gold star syndrome (woah, did I just name a new syndrome?!) is most often seen in women and people of colour. And we’re doing it in the middle of a Global Pandemic! The Fawcett Society have reported that not only are women bearing the emotional brunt of the current pandemic, we’re also working harder than before especially frontline workers (41% of women compared to 28% of men who are frontline workers say they have additional workload due to the pandemic).

Going down to that 60% effort isn’t about slacking off or not doing enough to get the job done, it’s about taking a step back when you can, recognising the chaos that is around us every day, all day at the moment and telling yourself that you are going to do the minimum that needs doing right now to get the job done.

This lowering of what you perceive as good effort is really a lessening of the power of those gold stars. I’m imagining them as a big group of chatty cartoon stars with angry faces constantly wagging their cartoon fingers in your face. Get a gold star or two out of your face and you might find yourself with some more time that you can spend with your partner, family, friends (at a social distance!). You might find you don’t wake up in the morning with such a feeling of dread for your working day ahead. You might find yourself, like me, just able to breathe a little bit more easily and able to give yourself permission to sit in a park for a few hours, without your phone, without worry, just for a little while. Time you can spend recharging and maybe even remembering who you want to be in life and how you want to spend your time on this great big planet of ours.

So, if you recognise yourself in this story of mine, take a few moments to ask yourself, “what if I took my effort levels at my job down to 60%? What would that look or feel like? What could I gain by taking my work/job effort down to 60%?”. Sit with it, think about it and let me know in the comments below or through my social media, how it feels to make that small change?